An adoptee’s tragic fate, and how it could happen again. Read a roundtable with its founders here, or see the method of child-rearing families stories in the Human Interest section. May 11, 2011, sometime around midnight, 13-year-old Hana Williams fell face-forward in her parents’ backyard.
Adopted from Ethiopia three years before, Hana was naked and severely underweight. Her head had recently been shaved, and her body bore the scars of repeated beatings with a plastic plumbing hose. When one of Carri’s biological daughters reported that Hana was lying facedown, Carri came outside. Upset by Hana’s immodest nakedness, Carri fetched a bedsheet and covered her before asking two teenage sons to carry her in. I think my daughter just killed herself.
From court testimony, pretrial motions, and a detective’s affidavit, here is what we know about what led up to that night: Hana had been outside since the midafternoon, wearing cutoff sweatpants and a short-sleeved shirt in the rainy, mid-40s drizzle of spring in Sedro-Woolley, Wash. 40 miles south of the Canadian border. Carri had originally sent Hana outside that day as a punishment, ordering her to do jumping jacks to stay warm. Hana was pronounced dead at the hospital, the cause hypothermia compounded by malnutrition and gastritis.
The following day, when Child Protective Services tried to check on the other children, Larry Williams refused to let them in. Two months later, in mid-July, CPS received an anonymous tip from someone claiming that Carri didn’t like her adopted children and that Immanuel was starting to be treated like Hana had been. CPS launched a formal investigation, and all eight remaining children went into state care. In late September, Larry and Carri were arrested and charged with Hana’s death. When Hana died, she became one of at least dozens of adoptees alleged to have been killed at their adoptive parents’ hands in the past 20 years, and part of a far larger group of children who become estranged from their adoptive families—frequently, as it turns out, large families with fundamentalist beliefs about child rearing. July 22, 2013, I watched as more than 160 potential jurors from around Skagit County filed into the auxiliary courtroom in Mount Vernon, Wash.
As preliminary questioning would reveal, many were familiar with the case. Carri Williams at her sentencing, on Oct. At the front of the room, with two public defenders, sat Carri, a frail blonde wearing a long skirt, thick white tights and ’90s-style curled bangs, fanning herself compulsively whenever she started to cry. The Williamses’ lifestyle of devout, fundamentalist Christianity would become part of the unfolding trial. 6-acre lot set back from the road within a gated community, the Williamses prohibited most TV and Internet access, homeschooled their children, and, according to a report by their adoption agency, only socialized with one or two families beyond their own relatives. But the book was just the beginning. According to court testimony, court documents, and pretrial motions, Hana’s life was a series of daily and escalating punishments.
4-by-2-foot closet, where she spent much of the last six months of her life, perhaps confined for as long as 24 hours as her parents piped in Bible sermons and religious music. Friends and neighbors noticed that Hana was excluded: trailing behind the family if they went out for a neighborhood walk, or lingering at the edge of the driveway while the other children played. Hana had stopped crying when spanked. To a local knitting group she sometimes attended, Carri complained that Hana was rebellious and wouldn’t obey. I don’t wish her on anyone. Things weren’t much better for Immanuel. When Immanuel began wetting the bed after a few months in the house, he says, the Williamses accused him of doing so on purpose and forced him to take immediate cold showers outside under the hose.
He testified in court that he too was sent to sleep in the bathroom. Immanuel was also punished if he didn’t feel the vibrations of one of the Williamses stomping their feet on the floor to get his attention. In foster care, after Immanuel and the other children were removed from the Williams home, a therapist and deaf-children’s specialist, Julia Petersen, said Immanuel had been afraid to talk about the Williamses, fearing he’d be punished. His language skills were delayed and his emotional state confused.
He compulsively apologized for minor mistakes and asked his foster mother why she didn’t hurt him. On July 29, Immanuel came to court to testify in the first of numerous half-day sessions where he would tell his story. Around the same time the Williamses were building their family, in the mid- and late 2000s, homeschooling conservative Christian parents of large families had begun adopting in significant numbers across the country, seeing adoption as a form of rescue that demonstrated their faith. In 2008 the Williamses decided to adopt. They looked to a nearby agency, Adoption Advocates International, a secular organization that was started by Merrily Ripley, a mother of 20, 17 of whom were adopted. AAI alerted them to a deaf Ethiopian child in need of a family. It seemed like a good match on paper.
Before getting married, Carri had studied American Sign Language, with plans of becoming a sign language interpreter. After they’d decided to adopt Immanuel, the couple saw a 60-second video of a tearful but healthy young Hana and agreed to take her too. Both children came from an AAI-affiliated orphanage in Ethiopia called Kidane Mehret, and both were reportedly abandoned. But after June 2009, there is no evidence of further doctors’ visits, and no more post-adoption reports, as the Williamses stopped sending in the updates that they’d agreed to provide to AAI, but which weren’t required by law. Once an adoption is finalized, adoption agencies no longer have the legal right to compel families to provide reports, explains AAI’s Knutson. Larry Williams testifies in court on Aug. When Carri and Larry Williams took the stand during their defense, they blamed each other: Carri for presiding over the abuse on a daily basis while Larry was away at work, unaware of how bad things had become, and Larry as the head of a patriarchal home, where his wife was just his delegate.